Hawaii Attorney General Clare E. Connors has joined a coalition calling on the Trump administration to delay its “public charge” rule so that lawful immigrants across the nation will seek health care during the coronavirus pandemic.
“The impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak are increasing day-by-day on our state,” said Connors in a news release. “The administration’s rule discourages individuals from seeking medical care even though they are lawfully entitled to receive it. This is potentially devastating given our country’s current crisis situation.”
Under federal law, many lawful immigrants are allowed to apply for public benefits, such as health care, if they have been in the country for at least five years. The “public charge” rule requires aliens to show they are self-sufficient and have not received public benefits over a designated threshold while applying for a green card or renewing a visa.
Connors said the new rule creates a “bait-and-switch” effect, given that immigrants who use the public assistance to which they are legally entitled, such as federally funded Medicaid, would jeopardize their chances of later becoming permanent residents or renewing their visas.
The coalition, led by Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, addressed its letter to acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf and U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) senior official Ken Cuccinelli on the heels of March 6 letter calling for the rule’s suspension.
Although neither official responded to the initial letter, USCIS on March 13 posted an “alert” that said the government would not consider any form of testing or care related to COVID-19 in immigrants’ public charge assessment, “even if such treatment is provided or paid for by one or more public benefits, as defined in the rule.”
However, the attorneys general said the alert contains confusing and internally contradictory statements on how the use of Medicaid will impact non-citizens.
“The Alert fails to recognize that in order to receive adequate health services, our residents need adequate health insurance benefits,” the letter said. “To achieve DHS’s stated goal of encouraging noncitizens to seek testing and treatment for COVID-19, noncitizens must be encouraged to enroll or remain enrolled in health insurance programs, including Medicaid, and they must be assured that such enrollment during this dire national health emergency will not be considered in any future public charge determination.”
The attorneys general are concerned that these conflicting statements could cause immigrants to forgo medical treatment critical to protecting communities from the spread of the virus.
“Given the grave danger facing our nation’s health and economy, it is imperative that DHS not chill immigrants from enrolling in Medicaid or using Medicaid benefits for any purpose until the COVID-19 crisis is over,” the attorneys general wrote in the letter. “Under the Alert, however, noncitizens who remain enrolled in Medicaid continue to risk their green cards and visas. As DHS previously conceded, this will prompt immigrants to disenroll from Medicaid and lead to an ‘increased prevalence of communicable diseases,’ as the nation is now experiencing at a horrifying rate.”
The attorneys general urge DHS to immediately announce the rule is stayed pending successful containment of COVID-19. Also, they urge DHS to clarify that enrollment in Medicaid and the use of Medicaid benefits for any reason will not be considered in the public charge assessment.
The attorneys general of California, Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Virginia and Washington, D.C. also signed the letter.